“Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Ever since people stopped wandering and put down roots, there has been a special place set aside from which they cultivated herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruit for the stuff of daily life. As our culture evolved, these plots were given names: potagers in France, kailyards in Scotland and kitchen gardens in England. During the first and second world wars, many Americans planted victory gardens.
Since that era, kitchen gardens became less of a feature in the suburban landscape. In recent years, many caught onto farm-to-table, organic and locally sourced philosophies by restarting a tradition that their grandparents kept — cultivating their own kitchen gardens.
So, in the middle of winter, what can you possibly do to maintain a kitchen garden? Lots of things, actually. Whether indoors or out, there are many ways you can keep fresh greens at the ready in your own kitchen garden.
Outdoor Kitchen Gardens
Fox Island neighbors Sara Schroeter and Debbie Mihali are living proof that potagers can work all year round. They are seasoned pros whose gardens are located right next door to one another. Both were featured on the Gig Harbor Garden Tour and they know a thing or two about making the most of a tidy plot of earth conveniently located aside your home.
“Oh, well, it’s not very tidy, but what’s that old phrase —’Do as I say, not as I do,'” says Schroeter as she waves a hand and laughs about her collection of raised beds. “I teach a class on edible gardening and when people ask me what should they plant, I always reply by asking them, ‘What do you like to eat?'”
Even in winter, there are plenty of things to keep an outdoor garden going. But first, let’s start with the basics. Both Schroeter and Mihali eschew wood planter boxes. “The wood rots and, besides, I like the ability to start a new bed easily,” Schroeter explains.
The two women employ what is called the lasagna method, layering newspaper and dirt until a mound is formed. Typically, raised beds are 4 feet wide and 8 feet long, separated by 2-foot-wide pathways.
“You can make your garden beds longer if you have the space,” Mihali says. “We both use wood chips to line our pathways. They are easy to get and make a convenient, dry path in between the beds.”
Placing your raised beds so they can catch the light for a majority of the day — even in winter — is a big help. However, it’s not a must.
“The land was clear cut when we moved in, so we had a lot of options around the house. Alex, my husband, and I picked this space behind the house but it doesn’t get much of the late-afternoon light,” Mihali says.
“Yes, the space in front actually gets sun most of the day,” Alex points out. “We just didn’t want the kitchen garden to be the first thing you see when you drive up to our home,” Mihali explains.
Along with space and light, it’s essential to have a water source close by. Schroeter has a specific system rigged up to ensure that all of the beds receive ample, timely water, even during the winter.
“When we go on vacation in the summer, I have a grid with an explanation for whoever is watching the house,” she says with a laugh at her motherly concern for her garden.
The Mihalis are the most active in outdoor winter gardening. Both white and purple cabbages, along with dinosaur kale and Swiss chard, are happily growing down her long garden beds. Mihali even uses hoops and a garden mesh cover to protect the plant starts that are most tender. Her supplies are at the ready, neatly arranged at the garden’s entrance.
Speaking of entrances, “around here, fencing is a must,” Schroeter says. “Otherwise, I would have none of my favorite plants that aren’t deer-resistant.” Which is why she keeps blueberries, azaleas and climbing roses in her garden, in addition to vegetables.
Taking the Garden Indoors
If this one is anything like the winter of 2008-’09, when it snowed through March, you might need to take your gardening indoors. Mihali has a glass greenhouse and grows tomatoes, as well as a handful of other tender greens, for her daily cooking. She has a not-so-fancy space heater and fan running 24/7 to keep things warm and dry. She’s kept things simple and the results are delicious.
However, if you’re not ready to purchase or don’t have the space for a greenhouse, a countertop and windowsill is all you need. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on the as-seen-on-TV countertop gardens. Pinterest, for example, has thousands of ideas on how you can keep greens handy all winter long.
Here’s a short list:
- Grow what you like, just like in your outdoor garden. If you don’t like cilantro, indoor space is precious, so don’t plant it. If you’re new at this, herbs and leafy greens keep well indoors, even in a glass mason jar or small pot.
- Ensure your plants have light, at least partial sunlight or a well-placed 50-watt grow light bulb. Darkness is not a friend of your plants.
- Feed the soil and don’t over-water, with a regular schedule based on recommendations and your own “finger test,” meaning if it feels damp to the touch, you don’t need to water!